I suppose this post follows on rather nicely from our last piece about caricature prints appearing outside London. To paraphrase Dr Johnson (or at least the version of him played by Robbie Coltrane in Blackadder); if a major exhibition of eighteenth-century caricatures is as rare as a talking dog, then a major exhibition of eighteenth-century caricatures outside London is as rare as a talking dog who speaks Norwegian. That’s why I was delighted that I finally got the opportunity to visit High Spirits: The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh yesterday.
The exhibition explores Rowlandson’s life, work and world through a selection of prints, sketches, books and watercolours taken from the substantial holdings of the Royal Collection. It opens with some of the earliest surviving examples of Rowlandson’s work as a caricaturist, and leads the visitor along a thematically clustered chronology of his contribution to satirical analysis of the 1784 Westminster election, the Regency Crisis, the Mary Anne Clarke affair, and the long war against post-revolutionary France. A second smaller gallery is then used for a more cursory exploration of his parallel development as a painter and illustrator of humorous scenes, landscapes and urban topography.
The first thing one notices on entering the gallery is the striking visual impact of the prints themselves. Most readers of this blog will have had some experience of handling individual eighteenth-century caricature prints but I suspect that very few of us have had the opportunity to view large numbers of these items simultaneously. The perfectly preserved state of the colouring the prints in the Royal Collection also means that they look exactly as they would have when put on display two centuries ago. Walking up the staircase and into the gallery, one is confronted by a riot of rubicund cheeks, salmon fleshtones and rich primary colours, and it suddenly becomes obvious why printsellers shop windows were considered one of the spectacles of the drab, image-starved, world of late eighteenth-century London.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the extent to which the exhibition deals with the wider issues of production, commercial exchange and consumption. We are reminded from the outset that caricature was a relatively exclusive medium targeted at a small audience of affluent metropolitan consumers. A couple of the more unusual items on display also set Rowlandson’s work against the context of a much larger trade in printed imagery. In the copy of a bill from the printseller William Humphrey for example, we see that a caricature by Rowlandson was just one item among a long list of prints the Prince purchased in December 1784 (right). Similarly, the print-covered screen manufactured by S.W. Fores and decorated with a mixture of satirical and non-satirical images (below), suggests that caricature images were perhaps only one aspect of a contemporary fascination with the unusual and grotesque. A close examination of the screen reveals that images culled from leftover prints by Isaac Cruikshank, Richard Newton and Rowlandson, were put on display alongside pictures of native tribesmen, monsters and individuals who appear to be suffering from extreme physical deformities. Its presence therefore subtly undermines the suggestion that caricature was considered to be a culturally significant, or political influential, medium of print.
High Spirits runs for another week or so and I highly recommend a visit, if only to check out the collection of Rowlandson themed fridge magnets, tea-towels and bon bons which are on sale in the gift shop!